New England Sustainable Agriculture Conference - 1997
The UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, working closely with an established network of agencies and farm organizations throughout New England, organized and hosted Practical Partnerships: A New England Sustainable Agriculture Conference on November 16-18, 1997.
1.Provide a forum for extension and USDA agency personnel to interact with farmers so that these groups can learn from each other and identify ways to work together to enhance the viability of New England farmers and the farming community.
2.Impart practical knowledge to agency people on ecologically and economically sound farming techniques that are being used and improved upon by farmers or developed by researchers or extension, and are therefore readily accessible to other farmers
3.Provide practical skills to agency people in the areas of participatory education and research in order to facilitate wider utilization of farmer-based knowledge and to encourage collaborative problem solving.
Method and Findings
In planning for this conference, the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture established a regional planning committee that included representatives from the six New England Extension Systems, NRCS, a Soil & Water Conservation District, farm organizations (including the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association and the Vermont Farm Bureau), and non-profit sustainable agriculture organizations. The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) co-sponsored the event and held their annual Resource Harvest in conjunction with the conference. NESAWG, a regional network of farm, environmental and consumer organizations, has been involved in efforts to promote sustainable agriculture through initiatives at the local, state, regional, and national levels, focusing on policy, food system development, and land grant sustainable agriculture programming.
The conference was held in Portland, Maine on November 16-18, 1997. Two hundred people attended the two and a half day event. Of these, approximately 80 were agency personnel (e.g., university, extension, NRCS, FSA, State Depts of Ag), 51 were farmers, and 52 were from non-profit or advocacy or educational organizations. The committee had hoped to have up to 250 people attending, but found that several other regional conferences held in the fall (such as the Northeast CSA conference held in early November and the New England Vegetable and Berry Conference planned for December) prevented a larger crowd.
Conferences coordinators emphasized collaborative working relationships throughout the conference. At each workshop, there was at least one producer to provide a farm perspective. Having these leaders in sustainable farming from all over New England sharing their experiences added a practical, applied aspect to all issues addressed. In addition, approximately one quarter of the total attendees were farmers. Their presence allowed all discussions to include constant measures of real world applications.
The goal was for participants to: learn some practical skills they could use at home; begin to think about farm problems from a whole farm perspective; be exposed to some new ideas and new ways of thinking; think about sustainable agriculture in more expansive ways, including the whole food system when appropriate; and work together _farmers, agency personnel, non-profit and industry _ to address farming, community relations, and all the issues surrounding a strong agriculture in the region. These four conference themes encompassed these areas: sustainable commodity production, whole farm planning, beyond the farm gate - community connections, and economic vitality.
Many of the ideas presented at the conference will require a great deal of strategic thinking if agencies, farmers, and other farmer advocates are to identify creative solutions. Farming issues now stretch beyond production matters. We need to think about ways to grow food more sustainably, pay farmers well, make food accessible to all, reduce our reliance on non-renewable resources, and build community. Coming to grips with such complex matters will require many more gatherings of people who care about the issues and much work in between to implement identified solutions at the local level.
Follow-up evaluations will be sent out in early summer.
Reported January 1998.